Trading Schedules for Freedom

I held onto the railing as I walked down the steep stairs, balancing a bag of beach toys in my hand and a toddler on my hip. When I let my daughter down, she ran off toward the tidal pools like a spring suddenly released—bouncing back once the pressure lets up.

Those were the days when I would sit on the beach and watch her run around mostly naked, covering herself with wet sand, clad only in training underwear. She loved that beach with its warm tidepools, the crabs under rocks and sand-castle conducive sand. I loved it because the trek down the stairs, although arduous, made it seem otherworldly and like our own private oasis.

I had never been to that beach before the COVID-19 lockdown, when I suddenly found myself Googling “parks in Victoria without playgrounds” and texting my mom for recommendations of hidden gems. During lockdown, my two-year-old and I had a routine of going to a park or beach every morning and staying out as long as we could until we raced home for a washroom and lunch.

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That spring, we discovered some gems: Francis King Park, Gowland Todd, Arbutus Cove, Finnerty Cove and Telegraph Beach, among others. Often, we’d just sit on the beach singing the songs from the YouTube list that was the soundtrack to our family’s lockdown, blasting “She’ll be coming around the mountain” at the top of our lungs while the other families in the distance chuckled from the other side of the beach.

Even with the lockdown, the social restrictions and the looming existential crisis around us—those are some of my best family memories. It somehow seemed so simple—being in nature, not worrying about a packed schedule, keeping up with social engagements or rushing to activities. There was just us and the only option for entertainment was nature.

Now with a school-aged kid and the pandemic lifted, I find myself feeling stifled by schedules. There’s gymnastics on Wednesday, Sunday morning soccer, dance recitals, school fundraisers, birthday parties and playdates. Then of course there are work deadlines, workouts to keep up with and aging parents to think about. What’s more, I can’t set the agenda anymore—my daughter now has opinions on what she wants to do and a social circle of her own.

The other day after ballet and our ritual of post-ballet coffee (me) and ice cream (her), I suggested we go to a “beauty spot.” With playgrounds open again, the term “park” has come to mean playground for my daughter. My suggestion of visiting a “beauty spot” rather than a park was met with a six-year-old going on 16 pout of “I don’t want to.” Often, I’ll give in, but this time I stuck to my guns and insisted we go to a beach afterwards. “I don’t like beauty spots!”

When we pulled up to our “beauty spot” and looked out over the beach and the ocean, we saw a regatta of sailboats with colourful spinnakers up. At first, my daughter climbed onto the car door, peering out at the boats with fascination. Eventually, we wandered over to the beach. She stuck her hand on the rocky beach and spotted a small spire shaped shell.

“You didn’t tell me there were mermaid shells mommy!” she gasped. She kept raking her fingers through the beach “and sea glass!”

“Mama, can we bring this pretty rock home? Can you put this in your pocket? Mama, you found one that looks like a heart! Let’s make Dada a collection too!”

She filled my pockets with tiny gems, a collection for each family member, and bounced across the beach to the rocky outlook. “Look, purple flowers! A secret path! Can we follow it mommy?” “Sure” I smiled. “I thought you’d like it here.”

During COVID, exploring nature kept our spirits up when everything was uncertain. Now, with the pandemic behind us, we are firmly in the era of booking summer camps at 6:30am and hardly having a weekend without a birthday party. These days, our nature adventures are a way to explore without a schedule, without a plan, without expectation. I knew she’d like the “beauty spot” but I had no idea she’d pretend the driftwood was a balance beam, the rocks were a stage and the park bench was a restaurant.

After our outings in nature, I feel so full—my shoulders lower, my breath deepens and picking up a birthday present for the next party suddenly seems less urgent. Exploring outdoors was the medicine I needed during lockdown and it’s the taste of freedom I need now.

Julia Mais
Julia Mais
Julia Mais is a policy and communications professional in Victoria B.C. She looks for beauty in the everyday through writing, photography and the outdoors. She lives in a messy, cheese-filled home with her husband and young child.